HC Deb 03 February 1826 vol 14 cc91-102

On the motion for bringing up the report of the Address on the King's Speech,

Mr. Whitmore

took occasion to regret, that the question of the Corn-laws was not to be brought forward by ministers in the present session. He had much confidence in the sincerity and good intentions of government; but, looking at that question as the one which must form the groundwork of every thing like a system of free trade, he could not help fearing that some unfortunate influence was operating to postpone its discussion. So satisfied was he, that without a proper settlement of the corn question, all attempts to keep up a scheme of free trade must be ineffectual, as ministers did not mean to bring it forward, he should feel it his duty to bring it on himself. He regretted thus to undertake a task which he had hoped to see performed by abler hands; particularly as government stood, in a great degree, pledged to the discussion of the subject. He was glad to hear the gentlemen opposite declare, that the present distresses (which he trusted would be transitory) would make no difference in the views which they had acted upon during the last session. The stoppage in the silk trade arose, in a great degree, from the apprehension of the masters as to the effects of the new measures; which apprehensions would be entirely removed when those measures came into full operation. The change which was pro- posed to be made in the system of our currency, as far as it was developed, had his approbation; but he thought that the suggestion thrown out last night by the hon. member for Taunton, deserved serious consideration. The making silver a standard as well as gold had been held objectionable, upon the ground of the variations to which silver would be subject; but if there was a probability of remedying that difficulty, he thought the plan merited full discussion. The hon. gentleman sat down by giving notice, that at an early day he should bring the Corn laws before the notice of the House.

Sir Charles Forbes

applied himself to that part of the Speech which touched upon the affairs of India; and reminded the House, that the observations of the hon. member for Montrose, on the preceding evening, were unanswered. He concurred with that hon. member as to the rise and progress of the war in India, and trusted that what he had said would have due weight with the House. The state in which we were now placed as to India was extremely critical, and he thought that upon the Burmese war there could be but one opinion; namely, that it ought to be ended as speedily as possible. The war had now lasted two years. It had assumed the character of a war of extermination. We might force our way, by the blood and valour of our soldiers, to the Burmese capital; but when we got there, we should be no nearer a termination of the contest than before. The Speech of last session had told the House, that none of the other native powers of India were inimically disposed towards us. The Speech delivered from the throne this session did not venture to tell us so much. If, as he contended, the country had involved itself in an unjust and dangerous war, the best way to escape would be by retracing their steps. He regretted that the wishes of the country had not been complied with by the recal of lord Amherst, a nobleman who, however amiable his private character, was evidently incompetent to discharge the high duties of governor-general of India. If we did not adopt different measures, we must make up our minds to lose India.

Mr. Carwen

said, that the manufacturers were grossly mistaken, if they attributed any part of their distress to the operation of the Corn laws. If rightly understood, they would be found to be highly beneficial to the commercial interests of the country.

Mr. Wynn

said, he had not replied to the hon. member for Aberdeen's observations on the subject of India on the preceding evening, because he thought the whole matter an episode to the general discussion, and because he knew the hon. gentleman too well to have any apprehension that he would be long without speaking upon the subject a second time. The right lion, gentleman then proceeded to defend both the principle and the conduct of the Burmese war; and declared, that the declaration of lord Amherst was fully borne out by all facts. Could any one deny, not merely that actual aggression had been committed against us by the Burmese, but that a disposition to the commission of such aggression had for a long time been manifested? As for the conduct of our troops, and the success of our arms, who could impeach either? If an enemy constantly flying before us, did not bear testimony to the valour of our troops, he did not know what the hon. gentleman would desire. As for any unfriendly disposition among the native powers of India towards us, he denied its existence. It was true that our army, or a portion of it, had suffered severely from sickness. This did not arise, however, from any peculiarity in the climate, but from those causes which must always, in a greater or less degree, attend upon campaigns in India. By the last accounts, however, the sickness was diminishing; and by the next, he had hopes that it would be found lessened in a still greater degree. He had not the slightest doubt that the valour of our soldiers, and the ability of their leaders, would bring the contest to an honourable and fortunate conclusion. He should hear of such a termination with as much pleasure as any man. But though it was our policy to avoid war as long as it could safely be avoided, it was impossible for us to overlook insults, or to shrink from entering into a contest, where it was obstinately presented to us.

Mr. Hutchinson

denied that his hon. friend had insinuated any thing against our troops in India, he had only lamented, that those troops were put in a situation where, instead of coming in contact with the enemy, they encountered contagion. Many individuals acquainted with India, and sensible of the imminent danger of a war there, were far from being convinced of the necessity of the present contest. For himself, he discovered a culpable omission in the Speech from the throne. His way of looking at it was, to consider it as the declaration of ministers. He entirely agreed with the chancellor of the Exchequer, that the king's ministers were bound to take notice of the public embarrassments. They could not blink them. It was their duty to meet them manfully, and to set about finding a remedy. Accordingly, in the first paragraph of the Speech, the distress was announced, and a remedy was suggested. He hoped that confidence would be restored; for the return of confidence would in itself be a powerful remedy. There could be no doubt of the resources of the country. All that was wanting to bring them into successful play, was the return of confidence. But, the omission of which he complained in the Speech from the throne was, that it contained no reference to the affairs of Ireland; They were given to understand, that the exertions of his majesty were unceasing to unite in lasting amity and concord all the nations of the earth. He applauded that disposition: it was wise, it was humane. But, then, it would have gladdened him to hear of exertions to do for Ireland that which was so anxiously attempted on behalf of all other nations. He had hoped to have heard of some attempts to secure peace and concord for his native country. A pledge of that nature given at the beginning of a session would have been most satisfactory to the people of Ireland. It was very true, that some indications of a favourable change were perceivable. He rejoiced to see it. He believed that there was a general tranquillity at present, as well as increasing industry; and, perhaps, they might indulge a hope of returning prosperity. But they were without a proper assurance of the continuance of that tranquillity. On many points of the national policy, there was a ruling spirit seen to prevail in the cabinet: with respect to the state of Ireland, it was not so. Now, how were the people of Ireland to be secured in the enjoyment of their present tranquillity, unless they saw a ruling spirit in the cabinet ready at all times to exert itself for their relief? And how could they feel this, while on every page of the Statute-book they could read the causes of their degradation, while nothing was attempted to remove their oppressions? Could this state of things continue? We were at present on good terms with France. We had no jealousy of her growing greatness, though she was moving forward in a splendid career. She was a great military power. She was increasing in resources, and was no less considerable now than she had shown herself under Napoleon. Her trade was prosperous, and her revenues so abundant, that the government was about to reduce nineteen millions of taxes. We might not remain on terms so pacific as at present, and those resources might be turned against us, as they had been by her former master. Should that period ever arrive, this country ought to be in a situation which would render all her power available. But that could not be with respect to Ireland, unless means were applied to include her in the general system of amity and co-operation. Approving of much of the Speech, he had thought it necessary to say thus much on behalf of Ireland, as there seemed to be little wanting to entitle ministers to the support of all parties, but the extension of their own principles to the interests of that country.

Mr. Lockhart

said, he did not feel so much apprehension as had been expressed by many hon. members, at the late agitations in the commercial affairs of the country, because he considered occasional paroxysms of that nature as inseparable from the enlarged and growing bulk of the trade and resources of this great nation. He could not agree in attributing any of the distress which had prevailed to the Bank of England, though he was not prepared to oppose the measures which were to be proposed for opening the traffic to other adventurers. He did not see the reasons which limited the Bank of England to a radius of exactly 65 miles. As to improving the business of banking by enlarging the number of persons in the firm, though the existing law limited them to six, it was seldom that a country banking establishment contained so many partners, as the law allowed. He really believed that the average did not exceed three to a firm of all the establishments which existed. But suppose an alteration of the law should enable bankers to enlarge the numbers of the firm, were they sure that persons of property would come in, and, by placing all their disposable funds in a bank, subject themselves to the hazards of trade, and the probable visitation of the bankrupt laws? It was clear to him that they would not. And then, would that bring the public the security go much desired? On the contrary, would not the chances of insolvency be increased by the addition of every new partner to the concern, which must be answerable for every imprudent member who might happen to join the firm? The law maxim "testes ponderentur non numerentur," was equally applicable to bankers. It was not their wealth, nor their probity, which could give the proper security. Had he to choose a person with whom to confide the management of his affairs, he would not be guided merely by the integrity of the individual, but by his firmness, his acquaintance with the world, and his accurate knowledge of mankind. Ask practical men as to the causes of the late failures, and he would venture to say, that they would agree that the greater part of those cases were attributable, not to deficient property or want of moral character in the parties, but to want of firmness, skill, and general knowledge of the world. The securities which were likely to be proposed would bring no relief to those cases. Lands could not be easily made available to the purposes of such securities. Another objection to taking an increase of the number of partners as a ground of security was, that it was likely to have a contrary effect, and to gather into a firm a number of specious and designing individuals, who would be mistaken for an opulent body of men, until their schemes should prove by their failure how undeserving they had been of public credit. He approved of much that had been advanced on this subject by the hon. member for Taunton, whose knowledge of the subject entitled his opinions to great respect. His hon. friend had pointed out the glaring defect of such supposed securities, and had directed the attention of the House to the practice in France, where private individuals might invest small sums in banks, without rendering themselves liable beyond the amount of those small sums. In this practice, the public had a full and sufficient security. Many gentlemen would have no objection to embark portions of their property thus far, though they would feel a repugnance to subject themselves to the possibility of a commission of bankruptcy.

Sir T. Lethbridge

said, he thought it was rather premature to discuss a measure before its details were known. His Majesty's Speech was, in his opinion, calculated to do great good. It expressed the determination of ministers to take the subject into their hands, and to bring it openly and candidly before parliament. Such a promise could not fail to allay the existing ferment, and restore confidence. He differed from the hon. member for Bridgenorth, who had attached blame to ministers for not taking up the subject of the Corn laws, and originating some measure with respect to them. He thought that resolution entitled to the greatest praise. The question of the Corn laws was the most intricate, and important of any which could be agitated. It was clearly improper to bring it forward at a time when the attention of parliament was to be taken up with an important alteration in the currency of the country. The question of the currency naturally went first, and must be set at rest, before they could undertake that of the Corn laws. He believed the public coincided with the view taken by ministers, and that there was no anxiety out of doors to see the Corn laws altered. He was fortified in this opinion by frequent intercourse with the silk-throwsters of the county which he represented. He was rejoiced to say, that the manufacturers, though under severe distress, took a more correct view of the Corn laws, and were by no means dissatisfied with the prices of agricultural produce. They were suffering distress, however; and it would be his duty, in a few days, to urge their earnest application to the House, that they would not persevere in enforcing the principles of free trade. In making that appeal, he should discharge his duty, though he had but feeble hopes of making an impression. He always had strong doubts as to the usefulness of those principles; but when he heard them advocated from the Treasury bench, and lauded by the most enlightened members of the opposition, he felt somewhat shaken in his conscientious opinion, which was, that the principles of a free trade, however beautiful in theory, were not applicable to the commerce of this country. They were told last night, that the new laws relative to the silk trade had not yet been tried, and that therefore it was impossible to judge of their effect; but, from all he could learn, the present distress was not owing to over-trading, or to the large quantity of goods in hand, but to the apprehension of a great influx of silk from France. The duty of 30 per cent, he was assured, was a mere mockery; that it could be evaded without difficulty; and that a manufacturer at Lyons would undertake for 15 per cent, to furnish in this country, free from all risk to the purchaser, any quantity of silk goods. The establishment of Joint-stock banks, such as were recently set on foot in Ireland, and had been found so beneficial in Scotland, would be the roost certain mode of fixing the currency; which, under the present system, was in a state of constant fluctuation, making prices high on one day, and low on the next. He believed, that the absorption of the one and two pound notes would lead to great inconvenience. These small notes were, for the most part, in the hands of the poorer people, for whom the legislature ought to be anxious; but if these small notes were taken away, how were these people to be paid?

Mr. Hume

was astonished to hear the doctrines which had been broached by the hon. baronet. If the views of the hon. baronet were correct, the currency of the country was always regulated by the Corn laws. As well might he have contended, that the monopoly of the tea trade enjoyed by the East India company, or that any other monopoly, had such an influence on it.

Sir T. Lethbridge.

—I said that the Corn laws were closely allied to the state of the currency.

Mr. Hume

said, he did not see what possible connexion existed between them. The hon. baronet had stated, that the sentiments of the manufacturers were altered on the subject of the Corn laws, and that they now viewed them in a favourable point of view. He would not deny, since the hon. baronet had stated the thing as a fact, that there were some manufacturers in Somersetshire who would rather pay 1s. for the quartern loaf than 6d.; but, he would take upon him to say, that the sentiments of these men were not in unison with those of the great body of manufacturers throughout the kingdom. And in the name of that large body—in the name of every class of persons in the country, the land-owners excepted—he protested against such a misrepresentation of their opinions on this question. The general feeling of the country was opposed to all kinds of monopolies—to the East India monopoly and the Bank monopoly, as well as to that of the landed interest—because it was now pretty well understood, that the payment of all those monopolies came out of the pockets of the people. He had opportunities of knowing the senti- ments of the manufacturers as well as the hon. baronet; and he could take it upon him to say, that they were not afraid of an extension of the principles of free trade, provided no reserve was made, and that those principles were applied to the article of corn as well as to all others. The silk trade, in particular, did not fear a competition with the manufacturers of France, if the corn trade were thrown open; except, perhaps, in a few fancy articles. He believed ministers were well inclined to carry their principles of free trade to corn as well as to all other articles; but they feared the influence which might be opposed to them on the corn trade, and from what had occurred in another place, there was no doubt that influence was very considerable. But, notwithstanding the existence of that influence, let ministers propose the measure, and it would, he little doubted, be carried in that House; and then, if it failed in another place, the country would see where the blame lay. He now came to the observations of the president of the Board of Control. He regretted extremely that a question involving the interest of millions should be considered an episode scarcely worth answering. This indifference on so important a subject was the more to be lamented, as there was not a free press in India. That had been put down by the most arbitrary and illegal proceedings. It was no defence to say that the governor had a power of acting according to what he judged best for the interests of the country. He had undoubtedly a great discretionary power; but he was not to use it in a manner inconsistent with the laws of England; and those laws did not sanction such proceedings. He had no right to put down the press, until it had been proved that the use of it, in any particular instance, had been illegal. With respect to the Burmese war, the right hon. gentleman had said, that he (Mr. H.) was bound to prove the assertion, that it had been wantonly commenced. The present was not the time for entering into a discussion on that point; but he would at the proper season be prepared to contend, that there was not, in the papers which had been produced, any document to show that the Burmese nation had discovered a disposition to commence the war. It was true that a subject of ours had been murdered in their territory; but they admitted the fact, and said that, as far as they could, they would punish the murderer. "The man," said they, "by whom it was committed, is a bandit; if you can take him, we will hang him for you with the greatest pleasure." They could not do more; for they had not the means of reaching that individual. He had no doubt, that had the Company an efficient man at the head of their affairs, the war might have been avoided, and a great waste of blood and treasure prevented. But, the inefficiency of the governor-general was not denied even by the Court of Directors. It was publicly stated, that he did not possess the confidence of that body; and yet he was still kept at the head of their Indian government. The feeling on this subject was general. He could quote many documents which would put that fact beyond doubt; but he would refrain from it at present. He could not, however, refrain from reading one extract from a letter which had been received from a highly respectable military officer in Calcutta; and. the sentiments contained in this letter were the same as those of every letter which he had seen. They all concurred in representing lord Amherst as an excellent man in private life; but, as a public man, as a governor-general, the general opinion was that he was altogether inefficient. The letter contained these words:—"There was never a more inefficient governor. He is imbecile in the extreme." Now this was a part of the subject which had been altogether blinked by the right hon. president of the Board of Control. That right hon. gentleman incurred a serious responsibility, unless he could show that there was even one man in England who concurred with him in the fitness of the noble governor for his present situation.

Mr. Fremantle

said, he could assure the House, that every one of the public letters which had recently been received, held out confident hopes of a successful termination of hostilities in India. The hon. gentleman had said, that the Court of Directors had no confidence in lord Amherst. This statement was disproved by the fact, that the directors had, if they chose to exercise it, the power of recalling him; which they had not done. Ought the conduct of such a man to be judged of by private letters? If there was any part of the noble lord's conduct on which the hon. gentleman could lay his finger in the way of censure, he was warranted in doing so; but let him do it on ostensi- ble grounds, and not on the irresponsible communications of private individuals.

Sir C. Forbes

said, it should, in justice to lord Amherst, be stated, that he was not in any degree implicated in the unfortunate occurrence at Barrackpore. He therefore hoped, that, in justice to the noble lord, all papers relating to that transaction would be laid before the House.

Mr. Wynn

could not see on what ground it should have been thought, that lord Amherst was implicated in the affair of Barrackpore. He was in possession of a variety of documents, which would remove any such opinion; but he did not think it necessary to lay them before the House. Equally unfounded were the reports which were daily published as extracts from private letters from India. The writers of those letters filled them with idle gossip, as if they wished to ascertain how far the credulity of their friends in England would go.

Mr. Hume

defended the authenticity of the information contained in the letters to which he had referred. As to the affair at Barrackpore, the conduct of the government was most blameable, in neglecting to give any answer to the applications made to them on the part of the troops which had refused to march. The then adjutant-general was now in London, and therefore the truth of the circumstance to which he alluded might be easily ascertained. Another ground on which he objected to the conduct of the Indian government on that occasion, was the manner in which it had behaved towards the native officers of the refractory troops. It was admitted, that they had remained faithful to their engagement to the Company, and refused to join their mutinous troops; yet, after this, and because they had not foreseen or prevented what had happened, every one of them was dismissed the service, as no longer worthy of the confidence of the Company. Was this a just or reasonable course towards men who had acted with such fidelity; or was it any encouragement to officers who might be placed in similarly delicate situations? Again he asked, what was the conduct of the government towards the unfortunate men who had been convicted of mutiny? They were (many of them men of high caste) condemned to work in irons on the public roads. It was true this was a commutation of the punishment of death, but he believed there was not one of them who would not prefer being shot, to dragging out an existence in that degraded situation. Was the conduct of the Indian government approved here at home on this point On the contrary, the moment the circumstance became known here, did not the Court of Directors, and the Board of Control, concur in sending out orders for the unconditional discharge of the unfortunate men? All he wished for, was correct information on this subject. If he should find that he was in error, he should be most happy to retract what he had said.

Mr. Fremantle

observed, that the hon. member was greatly misled, if he believed that no communication was made to the refractory troops for ten days before it was found necessary to resort to force. The very reverse was the fact; for, from the time that they first objected to march, up to the period when the fatal termination of the affair occurred, communications were every day made to them, and no pacific effort that could be resorted to was left untried. An offer was made on the part of the general officer in command, to refer the case to a court of inquiry, and the troops were told to send those of their body in whom they could most confide, to attend that court, and explain the nature of their complaints; and that if found reasonable, they should be immediately redressed. They refused, however, to listen to any terms of accommodation.

The address was then agreed to.